Here at Lean, Solid Dogs, we aim to foster cross-cultural appreciation among fellow Pointy Headed Intellectuals for the rich folkways of the Toxically Masculine Hooah (TMH) community. #intersectionality
So it warmed my heart when readers asked, “OK, so what are the reasons to lift extra-thick barbells that are too big to hold onto securely? That sounds dangerous.”
First of course, thick handles strengthen your grip, and if you have a strong grip and strong abs, you are strong enough for most real-world purposes. There is even a sub-sub-culture of lovable weirdos who specialize in feats of grip strength like ripping decks of cards, bending nails with their hands, or deadlifting heavy weights with just one or two fingers.
But there are other, geekier reasons for fat barbells like “specialized variety.” After you master the essential lifts (viz. squat, deadlift, bench press, overhead press, and pullup), you get stronger faster if you stick to those few exercises but inject a tiny bit of variety into how you do them. There are virtually endless teensy details that you can vary: you can switch up the order or speed of your exercises, change the width of your grip or stance, shorten or lengthen the range of motion, or switch barbells for dumbbells, or mess with your sense of balance by lifting blindfolded. You can even switch to a version of the exercise that purposely gives you bad leverage, like “diamond pushups,” where the tips of your index fingers and thumbs touch each other and make a diamond shape. (Try one right now; it’s fun.)
Bad leverage is what you get with extra-thick-handled bars: their center of gravity is farther outside your grasp and therefore wobblier. (Imagine holding a sledgehammer. It’s easy to control if you hold it just under the head. If you choke down farther, you can’t lift it or control it as easily. And if you hold it all the way down at the end of the handle, that dinky 8-pound head suddenly feels uncontrollably heavy.
This brings us to the other great benefit: increased muscular tension. You have to fight harder to hold on, and so you will be recruiting many more muscle fibers up and down the arm and chest and back, and that means you will be creating more muscular tension. In short order, you learn to create more muscular tension at will, and that is pretty much the definition of strength. Long story short: because the thick handles force you to clench everything harder, you learn to tense up harder whenever you want, i.e. you learn to be stronger.
In recent years, companies who sell this thick-handle equipment also claim that if you use it, you will get not just stronger arms but bigger ones too. (Remember, “big” is a different quality from “strong,” but it sells more product.) Will that really work? Indirectly, it could: if you get a lot stronger and then you employ that strength in bodybuilding-type training at some future time, yes, you will grow more than a weaker person. But in the near term, I am skeptical that the average exerciser will get her money’s worth if she just wants bigger arms. She will certainly get neurological improvements (viz. the ability to contract more muscle at will) and stronger “stabilizing” muscles, the dozens of small, aesthetically insignificant postural muscles that help you balance an awkward load), but that stuff doesn’t make you look swole in a tank top.
Lastly, is it dangerous to use these things? Won’t you drop them? Yes, you probably will at some point, so make sure it’s not on your face or your dog. If you’re smart enough to avoid that, they’re perfectly safe. (The big rule is just that you mustn’t use these things with a “false grip.” And if you don’t know what a false grip is, (1) congratulations, you are probably a normal, well-adjusted human being with a normal sense of values and perspective, and (2) you probably aren’t yet experienced enough to need this kind of equipment. Wait until you can bench press substantially more than your own body weight. You will progress faster that way.